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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Warts and Not the All

Passing judgment on the past:

After objections from the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada will reconsider whether former Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton should be recognized as a person of national historic significance.


Whitton, mayor of Ottawa from 1951 to 1956 and again from 1960 to 1964, was the first woman to serve as mayor of a Canadian city.


That "supplementary information" was supplied by the CJC, which opposes Whitton's recognition because of her role in keeping orphaned Jewish children out of Canada during the Second World War, Marie-Josée Lemieux, the board's executive secretary, confirmed Monday.

In light of the new information, Lemieux said the board will reconsider its earlier recommendation at a future meeting.

While Whitton's actions were appalling, they would have been quite popular at the time. Her anti-semitism was well known, as was her contempt for pretty much anyone who wasn't of British descent. George Drew, Premier of Ontario from 1943 to 1948, described French-Canadians as a defeated race, and tried to discourage immigration from non-British sources. 

Whitton was, however, quite a progressive figure for the era. She was a founder of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare, which is today the Canadian Council on Social Development, and an advocate of a modest welfare state. Bigotry, in both its vulgar and scholarly forms, was perfectly acceptable in mid-twentieth century. Much of this was driven by fashionable pseudo-sciences such as eugenics, as well as by old fashioned xenophobia. 

In the wake of the Second World War, and the dissemination of the Nazi atrocities, racism slowly acquired the powerful stigma we know today. While it is important to remember Canada's racist past, including the behaviour of Charlotte Whitton, reducing both Whitton, and the Canada of that generation, to crude characterization serves neither the truth or Canadians today.

Racism was not invented by white Canadians. It is as much a part of human history as war, slavery and tyranny. To borrow from one of Whitton's contemporaries, C.D. Howe, in racism no one has a monopoly on SOBs. Such bigotry stems from a defence mechanism, born of our early tribal history. Our survival depended on close co-operation between small groups of individuals, most of them close genetic relations. These groups could not function without high levels of trust. Outsiders were not simply different, they were potentially dangerous, even fatal. Who knew what the stranger might bring? 

Over time the "tribes" we belonged to expanded, from region to small nation state to continental state. We climbed a conceptual chain to the recognition of the universality of human nature. Not everyone reached that conceptual landmark at the same time, indeed much of mankind has yet to reach it. Thus the dark irony of modern progressives, professed anti-racists, refusing to condemn the racism of non-white immigrants. Most of those who immigrate to Canada come from nations that are, in every sense, backward. Economically, politically, legal and socially these societies are where Canada was decades, or even centuries ago.

Stating this fact, which even thirty years ago was quite uncontroversial, is now itself considered racist, and seen as an attempt to resurrect the worst elements of the Old Canada. The Old Canada, the Canada of Charlotte Whitton, was not a dark and evil place. It generated no great massacres. Its horrors were, by the bleak standards of human history, quite pedestrian. Aside from the fashionable bigotry of the elites, most ordinary Canadians were not so much malicious as ignorant. 

They, and their ancestors, had built a spectacularly successful nation. It was a leap of the imagination, which Laurier urged us to take, that these newcomers would eventually turn out Canadian, that they would maintain rather destroy what they had indirectly inherited. This is what the modern progressives miss about the Old Canada, it was far more apprehensive that evil. Its desire to assimilate newcomers driven by a sober understanding, borne of remembered experience, that the quarrels of the old world should remain in the old world. 

One of the main difference between the Right and Left in this country, as well as in the rest of the English speaking world, is that the former believes in the basic decency of the ordinary individual, the latter in his essential sinfulness. So obsessed with fighting the ghosts of bigots past, the Left ignores the bigotry of Islamists who plan murder on their "fellow" Canadians. It is not the generals, but the intellectuals of the Left who seem to be fighting the last war.

Posted by Richard Anderson on September 1, 2010 | Permalink


Frankly the busybodies at the CJC should be told to take a hike and ignored. There has never been a single person, including those of the CJC, with a spotless record from birth to death. I do not doubt the claims of her being opposed to allowing Jews into Canada at the time, and I agree that it was disgusting and immoral. She was far from being the only one guilty of this just as Canada was not the only country guilty of the same. The CJC should focus on existing anti-Semitism, the one that seriously seeks the death of all Jews and of which there is no shortage.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-09-01 11:35:07 AM

If they really want to honour Whitton, they should induct her into the Lesbo Hall of Fame.

Posted by: ralph | 2010-09-02 5:13:22 AM

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